"'Which long their longings urged their eyes to see': Emblematic Perspectives in the Early Stuart Masque" by Caroline Pirri

 

"'Which long their longings urged their eyes to see': Emblematic Perspectives in the Early Stuart Masque" by Caroline Pirri

“Which long their longings urged their eyes to see:” Emblematic Perspectives in the Early Stuart Masque

Caroline Pirri

Historians of the Jacobean court masque have emphasized the importance of its formal structure, rightly noting that the masque’s scenic backdrop - painted in single-point perspective - would have been clearly visible only from the king’s position at the center of the hall. While the centrality of the perspective schema was a critical feature of the masque’s reception, the crisp geometric lines that converged on the king’s seat were also intersected by a host of other perspectival frameworks. This paper will claim that in Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones’s court masques, emblematic tableaux and poetic emblems functioned as miniaturized perspective schemas; they opened out the centralized perspective of the main scene to the spectators ringing the borders of the hall. The masque’s use of popular emblems lent it a didactic function, providing Jonson with a visual scaffold on which to hang his poetry to “make the spectators understanders.” But Jonson and Jones did not simply reproduce popular emblems; they reinvented them, resisting transparency and legibility to create forms that were “not […] hieroglyphickes, emblemes, or impreses, but a mixed character partaking somewhat of all, and peculiarly adapted to these most magnificent inventions.”  To Jonson and Jones, the effectiveness of the masque as a political and didactic tool relied on the spectator’s ability to make sense of the experience.  And after the spectators were invited to shift their focus from the main scene to the emblems, they were detained in that unenlightened position. Their perspective was purposefully and continually frustrated so that they could be directed gradually – through the masque’s poetry – to the larger argument. Thus, the conflict between linear and emblematic perspective turned the spectator’s desire for visual and interpretive clarity into a motive force for political self-fashioning. Masque attendants were compelled to submit their understanding to Jonson’s poetry, and to James I’s position as sovereign viewer, in order to become ideal subjects. 

Categories: 
  • Debating Visual Knowledge